The Unseen Victims

Each week, at the end of “This Week with George Stephanapolis,” there is a recognition of the U.S. soliders who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan during the previous week. However, they aren’t the only victims of these wars:

The Army has recorded 62 confirmed suicides this year, and half as many more deaths may be ruled self-inflicted. At Fort Campbell, there have been five confirmed suicides this fiscal year.

In 2006 and 2007, there were 217 confirmed suicides in the Army.

At least ninety persons who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have died this year. And while we might be content to ignore this as simply fate, the military knows the reason:

“Army leaders are fully aware that repeated deployments have led to increased distress and anxiety for both soldiers and their families,” Secretary of the Army Pete Geren said in a news release. “This stress on the force is validated by recent studies of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans reporting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.”

Yet, as the Tennessean article that these quotes come from notes, there is only one suicide prevention program manager in the country, and that person’s position was only established a month ago.

As bad as these statistics are, they don’t fully reflect the depth of PTSD, depression, and suicide experienced among those who have served, for these numbers only reflect active duty military. Those who have been lucky enough to work their way out are dependent on the VA for treatment, a system that has been stretched by these wars beyond their capacity, and a system that is notoriously dysfunctional in easy times. Back in 2005, CBS news began to research the issue and discovered that the VA had no data on the prevalence of suicide among veterans, although they anecdotally suggested that it seemed high. CBS then undertook the research and learned that veterans are twice as likely to commit suicide as the average population. In 2005, the rate of suicide among veterans for the states for which they could get data (45) was 120 per day. While that statistic is for all veterans, those who served in our current wars was still between two and four times higher than that for others of their same age.

This past week, a guy dropped by the church to make an estimate on pest removal service. In the course of our conversation he told me his story as a Vietnam vet who had become a chaplain focused on ministry with veterans.

“The church is ignoring these men and women,” he said. “There is a desperate need for support groups for these folks coming back because if we don’t help them, they won’t get any support.”

He is absolutely right. The problem is that unless our church is located in a military community, we don’t see or think about the walking wounded that live among us, those who have returned and are trying to put their lives back together. I serve a community loaded with apartment communities and youngerish adults which very likely has all sorts of folks who served and are trying to get things back together in their lives. And yet, they go unseen and we don’t do much to try and recognize their presence among us.

I have said many times that we have no clue of the effect that these wars are going to have on us, consequences that we will be dealing with for the next hundred years. The church has got to anticipate the needs for the coming future, for there will be thousands among us in desperate need of the love and forgiveness of God who may become another statistic reported in the papers.

3 thoughts on “The Unseen Victims

  1. This is just the tip of the ugly iceberg. Have a look at rates of domestic violence in families of veterans. Rates of homelessness. Rates of rape amongst female service personnel. If you take a broad look at it, it is absolutely devastating. And we will see the affects of this for generations.

  2. Jay – Thank you for your concern for soldiers who may be at risk for suicide, depression and PTSD. Coincidentally, I also wrote for about suicide this week. This is a version of something I produced for Suicide Prevention Week 2008.

    Here are some suggestions from one who works daily with combat veterans and other soldiers. As always, I speak for myself and not the Army, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

    1. Don’t automatically assume every soldier or veteran you meet is broken or dysfunctional. Most aren’t. The same principle applies in all pastoral care. Don’t give more “help” than is wanted and don’t make assumptions.
    2. It seems that anti-war types always want to look at and “treat” Soldiers through the lens of their politics. Don’t. You won’t be helping.
    3. Respect their service and sacrifice. Physical and emotional wounds can coexist with belief in the value of one’s work.
    4. Pity is not help. Don’t treat them as helpless victims or infantilize them. They were strong enough to go to war – stronger than the average Joe or Jill walking down the street. They may be wounded men and women, but they are not helpless babies.

    Your photo is of a 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division soldier weeping at the memorial ceremony for one of his friends during the first weeks of the war in Iraq. The experience of grief is common to all humanity. Soldiers are not unique in their experience, nor are they more vulnerable than others to the effects of grief.

    To be sure, war does wound spirits as well as bodies. Even one suicide is one too many and the recent spike in the suicide rate is alarming. Unfortunately, your post has may mislead some readers about the Army’s program to prevent suicides and care for those at risk. You mentioned Fort Campbell’s hiring of a person whose full-time job is to manage the post’s suicide prevention program. This may or may not be the first of its kind in the Army, but that doesn’t mean that this person is the first to be assigned responsibilities for suicide prevention. Suicide prevention is a commander’s responsibility and he/she is assisted in that by chaplains, behavioral health specialists, etc. As far back as 1992-93, the Army sent me to the Menninger Clinic for training in suicide prevention. The Army has had for some years a chaplain working full-time with medical personnel at the Center for Preventive Medicine and Health Promotion. Space does not permit me to detail the many, multidisciplinary suicide prevention programs of which I am personally aware.

    There are still areas where the institution needs to improve, however, and Fort Campbell’s hiring of a full-time suicide prevention manager is a commendable initiative that direction. I hope makes a difference. I am sure that Fort Campbell’s initiative is unmatched in most organizations. Nationally, for example, suicide risk increases with advancing age. Since older adults comprise such a large percentage or United Methodist Congregations, I wonder if the Tennessee Annual Conference knows what the suicide rate is among its members or if it has employed a person with even part time responsibility to manage the conference suicide prevention program.

    The military departments, in fact, probably keep better statistics on suicide than most other institutions, making it hard it hard to compare military rates to those of other groups. In society, the male rate of suicide is about 4 times that of women, and men have always far outnumbered women in uniform. The term “veteran” includes all those have ever served in uniform in peace or in war. A large component of those are aging World War II era vets; among the general population, older white men are at the highest risk for suicide.

    The only reliable statistical figure that matters, however, is how the military rate has changed over the past several years. The correlation of the real rise in the military suicide rate with the War on Terrorism certainly suggests that the stress of deployment, family separations and combat is a contributing factor. It is not necessarily combat, however, that is the most significant factor. Deployments and family separations take their toll on families, even apart from combat, and broken personal relationships continue to be the most significant common factor in military suicides. And a significant percentage of Soldiers who kill themselves have never been deployed at all (including one personal friend who took his own life in 2007).

    Finally, you spoke of “those who have been lucky enough to work their way out.” Perhaps you can explain what you mean. I feel fortunate to have served in uniform for nearly 18 years, and I look forward to continuing.


  3. Mitch Lewis really laid it out great – and thank you Jay for helping to raise awareness.
    I work for the National Veterans Foundation, and for the past 22 years, our toll free Lifeline has provided comprehensive, live crisis management and information and referral to all veterans and their families.
    Our staff of veterans, experience ranging from Vietnam to Iraq, are trained in the delivery of information and referral services, as well as a licensed counselor to whom all crisis calls are routed.
    More than 40% of the Lifeline’s current callers are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. In the last two months, our organization fielded 485 calls from vets who were dealing with a crisis (homeless, substance abuse, violence, PTSD). Of those 485 calls, 227 of the callers were experiencing PTSD and 69 were dealing with suicide.

    The value of a veteran talking to another veteran is without parallel. If you are a veteran or family member please don’t hesitate to call 888-777-4443.

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